The Kentucky Derby

David J. Phillip/AP
Big Brown, right, and Eight Belles
round the far turn during the 134th
Kentucky Derby.

Kentucky Derby Returns With Improved Safety Measures

May 01, 2009 12:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
In the year following Eight Belles’ fatal breakdown in the Kentucky Derby, horse racing has introduced a wide range of safety reforms.

Eight Belles’ Death Spurs Safety Changes

Last year’s Kentucky Derby ended in tragedy when the filly Eight Belles broke down after finishing second. She was euthanized on the track, becoming the first horse ever to suffer a fatal breakdown in the Kentucky Derby.

Her death brought criticism upon the horse racing industry for failing to adequately protect its horses from injury and death. The industry has responded by instituting several important measures intended to improve the safety of racing.

The impetus to change was felt everywhere,” said Mike Ziegler, executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance. “It’s tragic that that’s what really opened everybody’s eyes, but I believe people are really grasping onto it.”

The Safety and Integrity Alliance was created in October to establish national standards for racetracks with regards to “injury reporting and prevention, creating a safe racing environment, care and placement of retired racehorses, safety research and medication rules,” writes the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In early April, Churchill Downs became the first track to be granted full accreditation by the alliance. The other two Triple Crown tracks, Pimlico and Belmont, are expected to be accredited before the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, respectively.

There have also been major changes in drug use and drug testing. Trainers are no longer allowed to give their horses steroids under a ban implemented on Jan. 1 in almost every state with horse racing, including the Triple Crown states of Kentucky, Maryland and New York.

This spring Churchill Downs instituted more than 20 safety initiatives in a program known as Safety from Start to Finish. It includes the implementation of “supertesting” for all its races, where every winning horse will be tested for more than 100 performance-enhancing drugs. The program also calls for changes in racing, banning “toe grabs” on horseshoes that can impede a horse’s stride, and restricting whipping by jockeys.

Injury statistics will be better kept than ever before as nearly 80 tracks have formed the Equine Injury Database System, a national database for reporting injuries that may “help identify markers of injury,” according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

One marker could be the surface of the racetrack; many believe that Polytrack, an artificial dirt surface, is safer than the harder natural dirt surface. The NTRA, Jockey Club, Churchill Downs and other organizations are providing funding for the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory, which will test the performance of current surfaces and help “develop safer racing surfaces.”

It remains to be seen how well these reforms improve the safety of horse racing, but many horse racing observers believe the industry is on the right track. “Shoe policies have changed, steroids are gone in 99 percent of racing, but I think the biggest change has been the openness to change,” says Ziegler. “That’s something you didn’t have very much before. It won’t fix everything, but it’s been invigorating to see.”

Analysis: The effect of breeding

Though the horse racing industry has instituted many safety reforms since the death of Eight Belles, it has done little to address what many believe is the most serious safety issue: that breeders place too much emphasis on speed and not enough on durability and stamina.

Most breeders try to breed horses that can win short races early in their careers and command large sums at auctions. “We aren’t trying to breed racehorses; we’re trying to breed sales horses,” said bloodstock agent Cecil Seaman. “The breeders are just breeding to sell.”

Breeders favor horses that showed speed as 2- or 3-year-olds, even if those horses broke down or lacked durability. For example, the sire line of Raise a Native has produced 15 Derby champions; but Bill Doolittle in Louisville Magazine writes, “In general, the knock on Raise a Native is that he, himself, was a brilliant but unsound two-year-old. He’s passed along his speed—and obviously some stamina—to those Derby winners, but his critics say he also has passed along some of his unsoundness.”

While there are organizations, such as the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation’s Welfare and Safety Summit, dedicated to studying the affects of breeding, the industry has been slow in introducing reforms to encourage the breeding of durable horses.

Background: Eight Belles

Eight Belles, the only filly to race in last year’s Kentucky Derby, ran well and finished second to winner Big Brown. But just strides after passing the finish line, she collapsed as her two front ankles were broken.

“She didn’t have a front leg to stand on to be splinted and hauled off in the ambulance, so she was immediately euthanized,” said Churchill Downs veterinarian Larry Bramlage. “In my years in racing, I have never seen this happen at the end of the race or during the race.”

Her death, coming just two years after Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro suffered a fatal injury in the Preakness, represented a threat to the commercial viability of horse racing. As some in the media declared that the sport was inhumane, horse racing fans and industry members called for reforms to improve the safety of racing.

Eight Belles is being honored at this year’s Derby, as the Kentucky Derby Festival awarded her the Silver Horseshoe Award and Churchill Downs renamed La Troienne, a Derby Day race for fillies, the Eight Belles Stakes.

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